This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Apnea, Insomnia and other Disorders That Keep you Up at Night

Tua Chuadhuri

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I have never cherished and longed for sleep as much as I have these past few weeks. No, itıs not insomnia, sleep apnea or paralysis that I suffer from, it is just the mere fact that I am a college student. I decided, however, to take this research opportunity and investigate these disorders that prevent people from getting the good nightıs sleep they need and I so long for.

Sleep is a function necessary to life. When we sleep the body rests, but the brain continues to function and stores and processes the data collected over the period of wakefulness (1). The brain uses the different stages of sleep to perform different functions. For example, REM sleep, the stage mostly commonly known for it conductivity of dreams, is also the stage in which sustains the growth of the brain (1). This is possibly the reason that babies and young children spend most of their hours in this stage of sleep. Scientists do not really know yet what it is that the brain does when we sleep, but it is just as much a function necessary to life as breathing or eating, in fact, you can survive longer without food than you can without sleep (2). I like the idea that the brain uses the time the body is stationary to process information, store memories and other information, and otherwise clean out and organize the clutter that daily forms in the mind. It makes sense then that this time is so essential for the function of the brain. It is interesting and important to discover why disorders such as insomnia, sleep paralysis, apnea, and sleep walking, which are all controlled by the brain, prevent the body from getting the sleep the brain needs to do itıs work.

Insomnia or the inability to fall asleep is the most common sleep disorder, or the most common symptom of a sleep disorder; between 20 and 33 percent of the population suffer from it (1). There are three types of insomnia, transient, chronic, and intermittent. Women, the elderly and individuals who suffer from long term depression are more likely to experience this inability to get to sleep (3). This is really interesting but at the same time, slightly horrifying. It strikes me that depression might be caused by a sort of cluttering of the brain. I know that in times when I am upset or stressed for long periods of time, thousands of thoughts continuously rush through my head. Somehow, the brain gets so messy that it forgets, or loses the ability to allow the body the rest it needs, and allow itself the time it needs to process the wild amounts of information, memories, and emotions rushing through it. It sounds, in the case of insomnia, that the brain sort of throws itself and the individual it helps to function off balance. This sounds like a cycle that is extremely difficult to cure, no wonder sleep scientists and psychiatrists are hard at work trying to prevent the brain from destroying itself.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes an individual to stop breathing for extended periods of time during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea. The central type is caused by the brainıs failure to send the necessary signals to the lungs to Œinitiate respirationı (4). Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when air does not flow into the personıs nose and mouth, though the person is still attempting to breathe. When muscles and tissues at the base of the tongue and near the uvula relax during sleep, they sometimes get in the way of the respiratory passages. This is prevalent in older men and individuals who are severely overweight, but scientists suggest that it is under-diagnosed (5). If this disorder is not treated, it can result in cardiovascular, memory loss, high blood pressure, headaches, and other problems (4). This disorder leads to waking suddenly several times in the night because the brain and body realize that they are not working properly. In children, I suppose this could lead to insomnia because they fear they are going to stop breathing when they sleep, so they donıt sleep at all. It has also been shown to lead to depression and daytime drowsiness. There are many treatments for sleep apnea including behavioral, physical, and surgical therapy (4). If the disorder is due to a malformation of the muscle tissue at the back of the throat, then surgical therapy might be required. However, most doctors first try to change the individualıs behavioral patterns to see if the brain can be cajoled into performing more appropriately. I did not find it mentioned in any of the sites I found, but I wonder if sleep apnea could have anything to do with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In both cases, an individual stops breathing for long periods of time causing a build up of carbon dioxide and shortage of oxygen flow to the brain, thereby eventually causing suffocation. Here too, the brain fails to get itself organized for one reason or another and in doing so prevents the state of sleep that it needs.

Sleepwalking, night terrors, and sudden awakenings fall under the label of parasomnias, movements and actions which would be normal were they to occur during hours of wakefulness (1). Most common in children, these disorders occur mainly in the early stages of sleep. Something triggerıs the unconscious part of the mind and stirs it into action, while the rest of the body still believes that it is asleep. These episodes are characterized by amnesia after the event (1). The brain forgets what it is doing for a moment and then remembers that the body is supposed to be in rest. This is why when, sleepwalking, people often perform normal daily activities like getting dressed or brushing teeth, they think they are awake. It makes sense that night terrors and sleepwalking occur when the brain has just begun to process a lot of the accumulated information. It is not surprising that a jumble of these memories, emotions, and acquired information, when unfiltered by the conscious part of the brain, creates overwhelming visions and sensations of fear. We are not used to our undiluted emotions, that is part of reason we need sleep in the first place.

Sleep disorders, although they are horrible for the people who suffer from them, provide us with really interesting insights into the workings of the brain and also introduce new mysteries which we could not yet begin to understand. The brain needs the time that the body is dormant to process information. Like any computer, when it does not get an appropriate amount of time to do this, it begins to malfunction. The interesting and slightly unnerving part of it is, however, that often these disorders are psychological, created by the brain. In these cases, it is as though the brain is undermining itself. We can try to fix the brain through various types therapy and medicine but if the subconscious can override the conscious as it does in the hours of sleep, how are we to function if our brains decide to go on the fritz. Then there is always the issue of exactly what the brain does in terms of neurons and synapses and electrical impulses during the hours of sleep. Although scientists have a vague idea of what goes on, they can not be sure because often the types of experimentation required would disrupt the sleep that it is attempting to study. There is so much more to be discovered about this activity which we spend half our lives doing. One fact about sleep is that there is more going on than appearances make us think. Sleep maybe a time of rest and repose for the body but it is a time of great activity for the mind. When one is asleep, the subconscious is in control, there is very little conscious voluntary motion. While the brain processes all the information for the day, it guides the body through the functions of living. These disorders then, which interrupt and inhibit sleep, are like hiccups in the brainıs control over itself. It is the moments when the conscious and the subconscious merge which give us problems. There is so much more to be discovered, but sometimes, in terms of the brain, I think it is difficult to discover how it works without disrupting the process that makes it work. Hmm. I think that with that, I will put this paper to bed and go home to sleep on it.

WWW Sources

1) The Basics of Sleep Behavior

2) Why do we Need Sleep?

3) The National Womenıs Health Information Center: Insomnia

4) Sleep Apnea Association

5) Parasomnias ,

6) The Sleep Site ,




| Back to Biology 103 | Back to Biology | Back to Serendip |

Send us your comments at Serendip
© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Monday, 07-Jan-2002 13:54:36 EST